Most dominant male college athlete in the country? Iowa wrestler Spencer Lee has a strong case

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

There’s a running joke around the Iowa wrestling program. It involves Spencer Lee, the Hawkeyes’ superstar 125-pounder, and a new nickname bestowed upon him by his teammates to adequately describe is otherworldly wrestling abilities.

“We call him 'Yoda,'” says Alex Marinelli, Iowa’s starting 165-pounder. “He does things to his opponents that are kind of un-human.”

The whole thing makes Lee laugh. He considers it a compliment — “and also, I’m really short,” adds Lee, who stands 5-foot-3 — because what he’s accomplished on the mat over the last two year has been, well, kind of out of this world.

Lee will lead the Iowa wrestling team at the NCAA Championships, starting Thursday at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis. The top-ranked Hawkeyes are the heavy favorites to win the national team title for the first time since 2010.

There’s a legitimate case that Spencer Lee is the most dominant male college athlete this school year.

More dominant than Devonta Smith, the Alabama receiver and Heisman Trophy winner. More dominant than Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, pegged as the No. 1 pick in the upcoming NFL Draft. Lee is the reigning Hodge Trophy winner, college wrestling's Heisman equivalent, and is a leading contender to win again this season.

More dominant than even Iowa's own Luka Garza, the nation's only unanimous Associated Press All-American selection. He's a 2,000-point scorer, but no college wrestler has scored points like Lee … ever. 

The 22-year old is among the heavy individual favorites in St. Louis this week, the 1-seed at 125 pounds with a 7-0 record. Next month, Lee plans to compete at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Texas, where a strong performance could take his preternatural wrestling talent to a global stage in Tokyo if he makes the Olympic Team.

“He rises to the occasion time after time after time,” Iowa coach Tom Brands said. “He’s a tough guy, but he’s a unique-minded athlete. He knows the work comes before you get the fruit. He wants to get better every day.

“And he is a ferocious, ferocious competitor.”

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Lee's dominance has been on display again during this weird, shortened season. He began the season with four first-period pins, then added another pin and two technical superiority victories at the Big Ten Championships earlier this month. In his seven matches this season, he's wrestled a combined 17 minutes and 38 seconds.

There is no clear apples-to-apples way to compare Lee to other remarkable athletes, like Smith, Lawrence or Garza. There's no collective Defense-adjusted Value Over Average score or Wins Above Replacement statistic that can adequately contrast their overall skill and ability.

But Spencer Lee is doing things college wrestling has not seen in quite some time.

The Pennsylvania native enters the national tournament this week on a 30-match win streak, during which he’s outscored his opponents by a staggering 371-32. During that run, which began in the first round of the 2019 NCAA Championships, Lee has recorded 10 pins, 12 technical falls and four major decisions (and one forfeit).

It’s not like he’s just pummeling nobodies, either. Over the course of the win streak, Lee has recorded 22 wins over wrestlers who have qualified for the NCAA Championships each of the last three seasons, including five of his seven victories this season.

“I don’t scout any of my opponents, because I really don’t care what they do,” Lee said. “My coaches might tell me something that they’re good at, but I worry more about what I do, my mentality, and how I wrestle. That’s all that matters to me.”

A year ago this month, Lee became just the third Iowa wrestler ever to win the Hodge Trophy. He garnered 91.2% of the first-place votes (52 of 57), the largest margin-of-victory in the 25-year history of the award. He is among the favorites to win again this season. Only four have won the Hodge multiple times.

For perspective: Lee won the Hodge by a larger margin than when LSU quarterback Joe Burrow won the Heisman (90.7% of the first-place votes, 841 of 927) in 2019, which was the largest victory ever for a Heisman winner.

“He’s got techniques and skills that are so smooth,” says Dan Gable, the longtime Iowa wrestling coach who led the Hawkeyes to 15 NCAA team titles in 21 seasons and coached 45 individual national champs 12 Olympians.

“I’ve never seen anybody do it that good.”

Iowa's Spencer Lee has his hand raised after a match against Ohio State at 125 pounds during a NCAA Big Ten Conference wrestling dual, Friday, Jan. 24, 2020, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

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For his career, Lee is 70-5 overall, with 58 bonus-point wins. But this 30-match stretch is not unlike what Gable and Cael Sanderson, the most well-known American wrestlers, did during their collegiate careers.

Gable went 117-1 and won two national titles for Iowa State, then won Olympic gold in 1972 before his successful coaching career. At one point during his junior season, in 1968-69, he recorded 25-straight pins. At the 1972 Olympics, he didn’t allow a point.

Sanderson went 159-0 and won four NCAA titles for the Cyclones, then won Olympic gold in 2004. He is one of four wrestlers ever to win four NCAA titles, and the only one to post an undefeated record for his career. He’s now the head coach at Penn State, which has won eight national team championships over the last 10 seasons.

But what separates Lee from Gable and Sanderson and virtually every other dominant college wrestler is his ability to score points so quickly.

During this 30-match stretch, Lee is averaging 12.8 points per match — and that's even with 13 of them ending in the first period. Of his 10 pins, nine have come in the first period, and in four of them, Lee had already scored at least 10 points by the time he recorded the fall.

Even more, Lee’s recorded nine technical falls — where he gains a 15-point advantage during the match — within the first four minutes of a match. At one point last season, he won six-straight matches by technical fall, and none lasted longer than 3:32. The streak ended with a first-period pin (during which he led 10-0).

“He makes a mockery of this sport,” Shane Sparks, the lead wrestling play-by-play announcer for Big Ten Network, said during Lee's first-period pin over Minnesota's Patrick McKee back in January. It was meant as a compliment, too. “It's not that easy." 

Lee has been so dominant that many of college wrestling’s top experts have started measuring his opponents’ abilities by the way he beats them in matches.

At the Big Ten Championships earlier this month, Lee wrestled Michigan true freshman Dylan Ragusin in the quarterfinals, and Sparks and Jim Gibbons, another Big Ten Network wrestling commentator, had this exchange during the match:

Sparks: “Right now, it’s about competing if you’re Ragusin. Get the experience. Don’t back down.”

Gibbons: “There’s no back down here.”

Sparks: “Absolutely. I’m impressed.”

Lee led 8-1 at the time.

Later in the match, when Lee led 13-2, Gibbons said, “Ragusin is a tough guy. I have a lot of respect for him after this match. … He’s out here battling. Tip of the cap.”

When the match was over, Gibbons added, “Great showing by Ragusin. He was willing to wrestle a high pace.”

Lee won 19-4 after taking Ragusin to his back in the third period.

“He’s not just a great wrestler — he’s above a great wrestler,” added Michael Kemerer, Iowa’s starting 174-pounder who was teammates with Lee at Franklin Regional high school in Pennsylvania.

“His goals are to be the best wrestler in the world. He’s known that since the time he was little, and he isn’t going to sacrifice that for anything.”

Iowa's Spencer Lee scores a takedown against Michigan's Dylan Ragusin in their quarterfinal matchup during Session I of the 2021 Big Ten Wrestling Championships at Penn State's Bryce Jordan Center. Lee beat Ragusin by 19-4 technical fall.

From 2018: Spencer Lee's endless chase for wrestling greatness

Lee will get an opportunity to prove it next month.

The U.S. Olympic Trials are set for April 2-3. Champions at this week’s NCAA Championships will automatically qualify. Lee punched his ticket in December 2019 by winning the U.S. Senior men’s freestyle national championships in Texas. He outscored his opponents 52-6 that weekend.

Lee has previously won age-level freestyle world titles as a high-schooler, in 2014, 2015 and 2016. His performance in Texas has many considering him to be a heavy favorite to not only make the team but win a medal in Tokyo later this summer. 

So this week is an opportunity for Lee to take one step closer toward his ultimate goal. But now’s the time to become familiar with him, because, as both Brands and Gable put it, he’s got a lot left that he wants to accomplish.

“The sky is the limit for him,” added Bill Zadick, USA Wrestling’s men’s freestyle head coach. “He can do anything that he wants to. It’s a deep and challenging weight in the United States, so we feel that anybody who makes our team is a medal contender.

“He’s a hungry individual. He loves wrestling. He’s intelligent. He has fun with what he does and he has fun solving problems and competing hard.”

Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.